In Emmanuel Macron, France has a new president who is liberal and pro-EU. There are encouraging parallels with his En Marche movement and where the Liberal Democrats find themselves after the rapid growth in membership over the last two years.
The headline is one of relief that Macron won a handsome majority over Marine le Pen. But the bigger earthquake is that his En Marche party has come from nowhere in little over a year. It’s rise reflects frustration with the established parties, and the widespread acceptance of a liberal mindset.
The Liberal Democrat membership surge since the 2015 General Election began with Nick Clegg’s remarkable resignation speech, putting a powerful case for liberalism even as we had taken an almighty pounding at the ballot box. As he phrased it then “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost”. Shock at that, and the referendum result, and Theresa May’s opportunism in calling the present election, have mobilised people in large numbers. Standing in Hertford and Stortford in 2017, I am humbled by the calibre of our new members, and working with a local party that has quadrupled in membership since then and is still growing. The 2017 general election seems very much about working with this new energy.
Macron and En Marche, like the Liberal Democrats, are now part of ALDE, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Their growth and ours feels like a reaction against the forces of division driving the rise of the far right.
One of the salutary experiences of the last few months has been door-knocking in several areas which Liberal Democrats have not worked for a while and where there is significant support for Brexit. Responses have been varying. Alongside those promising to vote Liberal Democrat there have been angry responses — people who see the Liberal Democrat clipboard and slam the door and even someone who rushed out of their house to shout at me for putting a Liberal Democrat leaflet through their letterbox.
This leaves me wondering about the antipathy.
A slammed door says that someone is angry, but not why. Where conversations have been possible — though they are sometimes rather short — they have been illuminating.
It’s easy to dismiss the Leave campaign for its lies. The sense I have been getting on the doorsteps is of something deeper than that, as if we are wrecking the bright image of a wonderful Brexit. The situation was brilliantly summed up by a UKIP leaflet celebrating the wonderful [sic] prospect of Brexit and suggesting that people depressed or upset about it should join the Liberal Democrats.
29 March 2017 was not a good day in the history of the U.K. It was the day when we took a wild leap into the unknown, chasing fantasies over reality. What Brexit actually means is hardly clearer now than when the referendum was called.
The prize for the most absurd Brexit comment on the doorstep in the first three months of 2017 goes to the person who said: “I voted Leave. We were fine before we went in and we’ll be fine now. It’s my children and grand-children I feel sorry for”.
The litany of lies from the Leave campaign should anger people: the £350 million a week for the NHS (denied the morning after the vote), the fantasy of a threat that Turkey would join the EU and flood us with immigrants (suddenly not an issue), the threatened end to free movement of people causing nurses to leave the country than burst of jobs, “take back control” turning into having to obey the rules others make in what Michael Hessletine has called “the greatest loss of sovereignty in British history“, and renewed pressure for Scots independence and Irish re-unification which brings the Brexit-related break-up of the U.K. much closer.
The rise of China promises a fundamental change in the world. The way China is used to operating is so far outside how the West is used to operating that it is hard to engage with. One of the things fuelling anxiety over globalisation is that this is happening beneath the radar. The change isn’t necessarily bad, but unfamiliarity breeds fear.
In the west, we are use to thinking of ourselves as global powers. In our own terms, we have been the world’s major economic powers, and have proud colonial histories. In reality, those colonial histories are murky, and we have only had dominance because of widespread poverty. The rise in the economic might of China and India has gone with increased living standards: the only thing that could stop a major re-alignment is the sort of humanitarian catastrophe which we should see as morally repugnant.
But change is not just about economic might: it is also about how nations naturally do things. The western mindset that has been dominant is not the only way.
I’m increasingly conscious that one really important group has become invisible in the storm around Brexit: the people who actually voted for it.
Canvassing recently my ear was firmly bent by someone who voted Leave and is worried about the NHS. The promise of £350 million per week might have evaporated on the morning after the referendum, but her concerns have not. She’s not angry at the lie: for her this is just one more in the chain of politicians’ lies. The worry is real.
One of the memorable moments in Laura Kuenssberg’s documentary on the referendum had Leave voters in Sunderland saying “now people in London have got to listen to us”.
Instead we have a prime minister saying “Brexit means Brexit” and talking of the “will of the people”, but who reacted to being reigned in by the courts by bring a bill before parliament to give her huge powers in the Brexit process. This sounds like a land grab from No.10 rather than an attempt at listening.
It’s happened. Donald Trump has been inaugurated as US president. Promising to “put America first”, his isolationism, divisiveness and seeming-instability take him out of contention to be the “leader of the Free world”. Angela Merkel’s highly-qualified welcome when he was elected marks her out as having the courage and standing to hold him to account.
We are in the surreal world where a wise and highly-experienced candidate who got more votes than him watched him be sworn in, knowing her campaign was damaged by false allegations that had her dubbed “crooked Hilary” while Trump has shaken off allegations that would finish most political careers and seems to have been facing a string of potential court cases, whose disappearance should raise an eyebrow.
I finished a recent post by saying that we urgently need wise leadership, in the face of the situation brought on by the referendum result (and the probably consequences of Trump’s election). “Wise leadership” can sound like a euphemism for a forceful leader who imposes a solution — which sounds more than a little fascist, and is the opposite of wise leadership — but it seems worth being more explicit about this.
Drawing on Kleinian / group relations language
It seems worth expressing this in terms of language that the world of group relations has developed from the work of Melanie Klein. In looking at small children, Klein developed two terms to describe the early stages of mental life (though inevitably this is a simplification). She coined the terms “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions for them — the terms are a little unfortunate, because they don’t mean that someone is paranoid or schizoid or depressed, but it seems worth staying with them. She suggests that these are not stages we move through, but ways of processing that continue to be part of who we are, continuing as parts of our mental life into adulthood: it is sometimes helpful to think of them as layers (or strands) in our being, and one or other is more prominent at any one time.
I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.
One of the ironies of the referendum campaign was the (unsubstantiated) claim that the EU is about to create a European Army. Yet as anti-federalists get jumpy about the tone of Guy Verhofstadt’s comments on closer co-operation on defence, Trump pushes for something similar. Has closer co-operation on defence just become a really good idea, and essential for the UK to be part of?
The sequence of events feels almost surreal. During the referendum campaign several former generals, including Lord Guthrie, came out in favour of Brexit, supposedly over fears that the EU is about to create an EU army. In the swirl of half-stories it was not clear what was actually being said: there has been shared policy on security and defence for a long time, which became the Common Security and Defence Policy in the Lisbon Treaty. Crucially, anyone with a grip on the different stories of EU member states would be aware that this is very complicated — particularly because of the anxieties in Germany about armed forces serving a purpose that’s anything other than defensive. A move as big as creating a fully-fledged European Army would also need treaty changes, which require the agreement of all the member states, so there is no chance of it happening without the agreement of the UK as long as we are in the EU.
A stream of polls show the wafer-thin support for Brexit edging away. There’s little evidence that Theresa May’s government has a plan for Brexit, never mind a credible one. Meanwhile the political tremors from Trump’s election in the USA are a reminder of the political value of a stable European union.
Over Christmas I spoke with an elderly couple who vote Leave. A months ago they were buoyed up: they had bought the stories from the Leave campaign, been worried about the number of immigrants when they saw a television programme from the place where they grew up (and haven’t visited in a long time), and were excited by the optimistic stories in some of the pro-Brexit papers. Now things are different. They had thought we would be out of the EU as soon as the vote happened — like resigning from a club — and are waking up to the sheer complexity of leaving. They are worried, particularly for young people.